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SummaryA good game, but not a worthy successor
The GoodBy playing AOE3, one can easily tell (if they didn't already know) that this isn't Ensemble Studios' first game. No, this title bears the mark of experienced game design peppered with tiny improvements over the previous titles in the way of presentations.
I welcome the improvement in graphics (looking at AOE2 now almost looks DOS like in graphical quality) and sound, and to my personal tastes, I appreciate the time frame that AOE3 takes place during. Instead of catapults we have cannons. Factories can crank out canned goods to supplement your food supply, and the difference in nations' abilities is enough to allow for entirely different strategical and tactical approaches as they are quite varied in their individual strengths and weaknesses.
But perhaps the biggest improvement is the notion of home cities and customized decks of cards. As you play through the game with your profile (I have not bothered with the campaign, I only play multiplayer games on LAN), you earn experience for things like number of kills, resources gathered, and the like. These experience points go towards earning your home city "levels" which can then be used to purchase cards to build a deck with.
These "cards" allow your civilization to have special abilities. For example, in game you could play a card that gives you an extra 600 food. Another card gives you say, two cannons for free. There are all sorts of cards, and you can have up to 20 in your deck. However, as you progress you will be able to choose from more than just 20, so the player must choose carefully which cards they will take with them to a game, and which to leave behind. This allows for extra fine tuning in play styles. Coupled with the civilization differences, various players can have an entirely different approach to gameplay here. Good stuff.
As your city gains levels, you'll be able to customize its features. In the main menu screen, one can see their city while people walk around in it at real time. As levels are gained, your city grows and you are able to add new features like adding decorations, people, idols, and the like (if you play England you can add Jack the Ripper and he wanders around with a knife). These additions are purely visual and have no part in the gameplay, but it's still fun as it gives some incentive to level up your city and play more.
The environment seems a little more alive here as well. There are Native Americans which are neutral at the start of the game, and by building tradeposts nearby it's possible to get access to their technologies and warriors. Animals of all types roam the landscape, each with their own relevant amount of meat to feed your population. Buildings have shingles and chunks fly off of them when hit by cannons. A mortar round from a Monitor ship will send a villager sliding across the ground, their lifeless body hitting rocks and such along the way. Trade carts have been replaced by stagecoaches and steam locomotives that ride on rails sprawling through the map delivering supplies. The world is just much more alive here than in AOE2.
Furthermore, I appreciate that the resources now consist of simply food, wood, and coin. What's more is that there are different ways to produce all three types of resources. You can hunt, farm, and/or mill for food (among other things). Coin can be gained through mining, plantations, whaling, and other endeavors. Wood must be chopped down from trees by hand, but you can supplement your supply by having it delivered in tradeposts or produced from a factory.
AI is pretty decent. If you're producing lots of cannons they'll marginalize infantry and produce other types of units. In other words, the AI will adjust unit types throughout the game depending on the challenges you face them with.
The BadUnfortunately, there are some giant steps backwards with this title when compared to previous installments of the series.
For one, there are NO wonders. None at all. No wonder victory, no special abilities from wonders, nothing of the sort. Why?! I feel like this is intentional. I mean, AOE and AOE2 had wonders from the start, but with AOE3 they don't exist. Well, the Asian Dynasty expansion released in October of 2007 has them. I feel like the designers intentionally left them out so that they could sell an expansion pack with them later on. The practice of strip mining this franchise is starting to interfere with game development, and it shows.
Another step backwards is that there is really only one game type; kill your enemies. You have supremacy where you have to focus on building up your empire along with defeating your enemy, and you have deathmatch that just has you crank out units to throw at your enemy. There is no regicide, wonder victory, idol victory, timed game, or anything else. Again, they have lowered the number of features in the game. This is a huge let down for me as I play LAN games daily with AOE, and I find it disgusting that a newer installment is sporting fewer features.
In addition to that, the map options for multiplayer are pathetic. They've gone mostly from map types, to map styles. Teams islands are gone, replaced mostly by Amazonia that has a giant river separating teams. Furthermore, you can't play with two players on a four player map, four players on a six player map, etc. If you have four players, you MUST play on a four player sized map. The game will not start if you have open spots (which by the way cannot be closed in the drop down window as a player must join or a computer opponent must be added), so if you like doing a 1v1 on a giant sized map, forget it.
This game also fails to offer up options that many other RTS titles have already done. It's not possible to vary the difficulty with more than one AI opponent. For example, say you have 3v3 against the computer. You can't have say, two expert opponents and one medium. They're either all easy, moderate, expert, etc.
Combat is too much like rock/paper/scissors. Cannons are good against infantry, calvary against cannons, pikemen against calvary... it just seems old hat at this point to make a combat model based on this concept. Furthermore, there are some pointless units. For example, what is the difference between an anti-infantry cannon and an anti-artillery cannon? Why should an anti-infantry cannon be terrible at taking out another cannon, especially in reality during this time frame the way you take out an enemy cannon is by killing the infantry operating it, not by focusing on destroying the hardware itself?
Other little annoyances are present as well, like villagers that remain idle after having built a structure. Take a villager off of resource gathering to build a house, and once the house is done they just stand there. They do not go back to resource gathering as in the previous installment. I also don't appreciate that this game runs like shit on a LAN. There is no excuse for it. One player games do just fine. On a LAN, it's choppy as hell. This shouldn't be the case with a 5200 x2 with 8600GT in SLI and 2GB RAM. I don't have problems with performance issues on any other LAN games, and this one is fine in single player, so I blame the coders here.